CA-Net: Comprehensive Attention Convolutional Neural Networks for Explainable Medical Image Segmentation

Ran Gu, Guotai Wang, Tao Song, Rui Huang, Michael Aertsen, Jan Deprest, Sebastien Ourselin, Tom Vercauteren, Shaoting Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

98 Citations (Scopus)


Accurate medical image segmentation is essential for diagnosis and treatment planning of diseases. Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) have achieved state-of-the-art performance for automatic medical image segmentation. However, they are still challenged by complicated conditions where the segmentation target has large variations of position, shape and scale, and existing CNNs have a poor explainability that limits their application to clinical decisions. In this work, we make extensive use of multiple attentions in a CNN architecture and propose a comprehensive attention-based CNN (CA-Net) for more accurate and explainable medical image segmentation that is aware of the most important spatial positions, channels and scales at the same time. In particular, we first propose a joint spatial attention module to make the network focus more on the foreground region. Then, a novel channel attention module is proposed to adaptively recalibrate channel-wise feature responses and highlight the most relevant feature channels. Also, we propose a scale attention module implicitly emphasizing the most salient feature maps among multiple scales so that the CNN is adaptive to the size of an object. Extensive experiments on skin lesion segmentation from ISIC 2018 and multi-class segmentation of fetal MRI found that our proposed CA-Net significantly improved the average segmentation Dice score from 87.77% to 92.08% for skin lesion, 84.79% to 87.08% for the placenta and 93.20% to 95.88% for the fetal brain respectively compared with U-Net. It reduced the model size to around 15 times smaller with close or even better accuracy compared with state-of-the-art DeepLabv3+. In addition, it has a much higher explainability than existing networks by visualizing the attention weight maps. Our code is available at

Original languageEnglish
JournalIEEE transactions on medical imaging
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Nov 2020


Dive into the research topics of 'CA-Net: Comprehensive Attention Convolutional Neural Networks for Explainable Medical Image Segmentation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this